Image: U.S. Army File Photo
In a strange experiment, a U.S. Army program embedded social scientists with armed military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, beginning in 2007. The program finally just ended.
Its closure was long overdue.
The Human Terrain Systems cost taxpayers $726 million. Much of that funding went to defense contractors BAE Systems and CGI Federal.
The program was supposed to promote cultural understanding between U.S. forces and Iraqis and Afghans, thereby reducing casualties. But few involved with the program’s technicalities supported its mission.
Anthropologists warned the program might harm both themselves and the civilians the teams were meant to be studying. Less than a year after first teams arrived in Afghanistan, the American Anthropological Association declared the program "an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise."
Others concluded that HTS was a propaganda tool for winning American hearts and minds—particularly intellectuals and liberals who otherwise opposed military occupation.
Even some members of the military had their doubts. Lt. Col. Gian Gentile said "the effectiveness of the [teams] was dubious at best" and Maj. Ben Connable said it was "undermining sustainable military cultural competence."
What went wrong?
BAE Systems' management and hiring practices were appallingly irresponsible. Most academics who were recruited possessed limited knowledge of Iraqi or Afghan culture. Few understood Arabic, Pashto, or Dari. Yet HTS grew apace, with analysts earning six-digit salaries.
Its personnel conducted a range of other unintended activities including census taking, intelligence gathering and psychological operations. They neglected their original diplomatic goals.
Tragedy struck the program between May 2008 and January 2009 when three employees—Michael Bhatia, Nicole Suveges, and Paula Loyd—were killed in action. Critics suggested that the defense contractors recklessly endangered employees by rushing to get them on the battlefield.
By 2009, former HTS personnel had reported rampant racism, sexual harassment, and payroll padding.
U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) of the House Armed Services Committee launched a one-man crusade against HTS. His frustration was palpable. "It's shocking that this program, with its controversy and highly questionable need, could be extended,” he said last year. “It should be ended.”
HTS eventually succumbed. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the imminent departure of troops from Afghanistan hastened its demise. One can only wonder why the Defense Department took eight years to determine that their “experimental concept” failed.
Some describe HTS as a good idea that was badly mismanaged. It would be more accurate to describe HTS as a bad idea that was badly mismanaged.
Cultural knowledge is not a service that can be provided by contractors and consultants, much less a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. HTS was built upon flawed assumptions and its abysmal record was the inevitable result.
The larger lesson to be learned goes beyond the Human Terrain System. Thriftless Pentagon programs are all too frequent reminders of how the military-industrial complex can easily run amok, leaving taxpayers on the hook.
Averting future billion-dollar boondoggles will require more effective oversight, less deification of celebrity generals, and closer scrutiny of opportunistic defense contractors.
Roberto J. González is a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. He has authored several books including "Zapotec Science" (2001), "American Counterinsurgency" (2009), and "Militarizing Culture" (2010). He can be contacted at email@example.com.